This was originally published in The Literary Review.
In 1996, I was gathering pieces for an anthology of memoirs. I had stories from Phillip Lopate, Catherine Texier, Lois Gould, Peter Trachtenberg, and Jerry Stahl. Bruce Benderson suggested I read the work of a 16-year-old boy he was exchanging emails with. I said, “Why would I be interested in a kid?” Bruce said, “He’s literary.” I said, “How can that be?” He said, “I don’t know, but you have to read it.”
The boy went by the name Terminator—a joke about his looks. A picture Bruce kept on his bookcase showed a gawky, towheaded slip. He had contacted Bruce on the suggestion of Dennis Cooper. Terminator had started writing, the story went, spurred by his therapist, Terry Owens, who was teaching a course on at-risk adolescents and thought his students could benefit from true-life tales. According to the story, Terminator was the child of a teen-age mother who was dead and had abused him. She had dressed him as a girl, and he had turned tricks at truck stops. Now, he lived with his boyfriend, Astor, and Astor’s girlfriend, Speedy. He had been addicted to drugs, had lived on the streets, and was still engaging in high-risk, S/M sex. He had AIDS, and because of scars from Kaposi’s lesions and sexual savageries, he didn’t like people to see his body. Bruce had helped other boys teetering on the edge, although no one before with as complete a menu of desperate data points.
The first pieces I read were handwritten, and their power was unmistakable, slicing along with lyrical images, eloquent silences, and physical descriptions that conveyed interior emotional states. The writing was startling for someone of any age but almost impossible to grasp for a person so young and virtually unschooled. (The story.) The pieces I read drew the reader into the narrator’s love for his crazied, funny, dangerous mother and didn’t offer a way out. Their transgressiveness wasn’t in the lurid subject matter but in the narrator’s unwillingness to reduce emotion to something that could be analyzed or controlled. The verb tenses were a mess, the punctuation nonexistent, the sense of where we were in time and space confusing, but the writer was 16 and had turned himself into an artist instead of a case history. He had to be some kind of genius, right?
Close to the Bone, published by Grove Press in 1997, includes “Baby Doll,” a memoir by Terminator. In it, the narrator tricks with his mother’s lover and uses Krazy Glue to tuck back his penis. It is the first published writing of the person who would change his name to JT Leroy, produce several books of fiction, and gain access to more celebrities than all the writers I know put together. Several times a week for a couple of years, I as well as Bruce, Dennis, Joel Rose and Mary Gaitskill received breathy phone calls in a West Virginia drawl and long, confessional emails from a person we thought was a kid with AIDS. He asked about what I was writing and who I was dating. He was flattering, sweet. Also draining, emotionally skittish, and insatiable in his need to worry out loud. I soon got tired of his star-fucking/name-dropping routine. Down the line, he included “Baby Doll” in a collection of short stories and didn’t acknowledge where it had first appeared. I thought this was bad form and assumed he or his editor, presenting it as fiction, wanted to erase its association with memoir. I didn’t raise the issue. He had AIDS, and he was a kid, and he was becoming a success.
As his fame rose, I dropped out of the loop. I was happy for him, but I found Sarah, the novel that established his name, too whimsical and sentimental for my taste. I wasn’t interested in his cultish status as a survivor and an inspiration, although the question of his health affected all my thoughts about him.
Flash forward to fall 2005 when Stephen Beachy called to interview me for the story he was writing for New York Magazine, claiming JT Leroy was actually a 40-year-old woman named Laura Albert and the 10-year escapade was a scam. I thought his theory was vengeful and nuts, but it turned out to be true. It was hard to absorb the facts. The enormity of the charade, the thousands of hours spent keeping so many plates in the air. I read over emails I’d received, long and detailed. Albert had corresponded this way with everyone on her list. I had never met JT, although I’d been invited to several times when the part was being played by Savannah Knoop, the half-sister of Geoffrey, a.k.a. Astor. But I’d talked to Terry Owens on the phone when Terminator was going through one his periodic—and now, I know, fake—plunges. Owens, it turns out, had conducted his sessions over the phone and was another gull.
No one likes being fooled, but I don’t feel personally damaged. There was mutual gain. Albert launched her publishing career, and I presented a writer I admired. The repellent part is that she traded on the suffering of real people with AIDS and real kids who have been abused to advance herself with editors and publishers who believed they were helping a young person in need.
Knoop admitted to New York Times reporter Warren St. John (February 7, 2006) that he’d managed the day-to-day business of the JT hoax while Albert wrote the books. He said she believed she needed to package herself to get noticed. Even after she was exposed, she did not admit she was deceptive. In an interview published in the Paris Review (Fall, 2006), she says, “I’m sad I was so injured. Many people were inspired that someone so young could write what I was writing. JT is fifteen years younger than me. All I can say is I am sorry if people are disappointed or offended. If knowing that I’m fifteen years older than Jeremy devalues the work, then I’m sorry they feel that way.” In his admission to the Times, Knoop made a perfunctory apology to people who’d been injured, without specifying who they were or in what way, but he was less contrite than eager to rid himself of a personal hassle: “If you’re feeling more and more suffocated by the complications and lies, it’s not worth it.”
Where did these people get the idea that in order to exist in the public sphere they needed a marketing gimmick? How did they come to feel anything and everything you do justifies name recognition? Gee, I don’t know, Satan?
By the time the jig was up, the Leroy brand wasn’t selling transgression. Transgression is what resists being a brand. It was selling rags-to-riches inspiration, surviving with H.I.V., and hanging with cool people because you have done risky drugs, risky sex, and other louche and nihilistic things to yourself. Then written about it.
Albert was exposed around the time The Smoking Gun website revealed James Frey had falsified pivotal facts in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, presenting himself as a meaner, tougher, and raunchier dude than in actuality he was. The Frey and Albert stories, linked in the press, have similarities. Both promote bad behavior as a badge of coolness on one hand and on the other a tattoo marker of recovery. Even though Albert published her work as fiction (except, originally, “Baby Doll”), the brand of such work depends on the public’s assumption the stories have been lifted from real life. Frey’s publisher, Doubleday, wasn’t interested in marketing his book as a novel, which was his preference. Doubleday believed it could sell more copies feeding readers a sensational story about an actual person, packaged with redemption, inspiration, and a cross here and there.
Frey wouldn’t be condemned (at least not for being a liar) if his potboiler had appeared as a novel based on his life—like Albert-as-Leroy’s fiction. Albert-as-Leroy’s books have turned out to be plain old fictional fictions. Albert misrepresented herself, not the genre she was writing in (except for “Baby Doll”). Frey’s offence was in writing a false nonfiction book. The fact that it was also a memoir and that memoirs are different from other kinds of nonfiction books has not been talked about in ensuing discussions.
I watched Frey sit across from Oprah after The Smoking Gun revelations. His memoir was among her vaunted, book club selections, and now she made him own up to every lie, and they were whoppers. He hadn’t spent time in jail. He hadn’t endured root canal without anesthesia. On and on. By the end of the interrogation, with brow furrowed and head slumped forward, he looked like a chimp who had been shocked many times in an electrified maze. Breathing fire, Oprah defined the memoir as a document whose statements had to be verifiable.
Frey didn’t add any gray to her black and white picture, and no one else piped up to remind Oprah’s viewers the memoir is a type of imaginative writing. In order to tell a story, the writer needs to create a dramatic narrative, edit out the non-essential, move back and forth in time, and use description and dialogue no one’s memory can exactly transcribe. Frey’s book isn’t fiction disguised as fact. It is dishonest writing without stakes.
Kafka said, “Books must be an ax for the frozen sea inside of us.” He meant literature needs to tell the truth without concern for the protection of anyone, especially the author. He meant the author must not pretty things up or promote virtues. In Frey’s case, wanting to generate amazement, he concocted a Mt. Everest of abasement in order to ramp up the macho of surviving that much peril. The result is self-flattery. Finding stakes for him would mean discovering a story in the schmendrick he is.
Similarly, instead of mugging the public, Albert might have revised her drafts and sent out her manuscripts to magazines and journals in her own name, like the rest of us do. Our cages will always be rattled by outlaws and risk takers. But how badass is someone who wants to make it so much in the established world? When you scrape off the JT Leroys, there is probably always a Laura Albert inside. The tension is interesting. But rather than scrutinize their uncertainties, Albert and Frey chose routes that were safe, and despite the trappings of the wild side, they were as conventional as it gets.
Against the background of the mega lies that governments and corporations tell, what’s the big deal about a writer profiting from a little lie, Albert and Frey may have asked themselves. Jon Stewart compared the huge attention the press paid to Frey with its relatively puny coverage of the government’s lies about Iraq and its spying on citizens. The press isn’t interested in lying in either case. Frey and Albert have been fodder because they’re celebrities. Small choices do alter the world, and little lies are like little murders. Something is decaying and stinking up the joint.